Peering over the nostalgia goggles: Ready Player One.


Initial release: March 2018. Screenplay by Ernest Cline. Directed by Steven Spielberg.

Summary: Wade Watts is a Gunter in the virtual reality world OASIS, meaning he hunts for the Easter Egg left by OASIS creator Halliday. Whoever finds the egg wins Halliday’s fortune, but the competition is stiff and only the greatest 80s nerd has a chance at cracking the trials.

After kinda-sorta hating the book, Ready Player One was one of the strangest movie-going experiences I ever had and I do not say that lightly

These include, but are not limited to, sneaking out of my parent’s house to see the midnight premiere of Die Another Day with a Belgian opera singer, but I digress

But this was especially odd. I saw it twice within a month last spring, and I saw two entirely different movies. They were barely even related to each other. Now, I didn’t see different cuts, the movie itself was identical – so the variable was me. After some reflection, I realise that the two viewing experiences were highly illustrative of the film’s high and low points, and essentially gives the film a kind of balance, and while I hated Ready Player One intensely after the first viewing, the second time was much less jarring

If you want to know why I saw it twice, it’s because I have dirty rotten no-good friends who asked me again and I said yes because I am a sucker for a big bag of sweets and a big dark room with a screen in it shut up

So let’s use that as a jumping off point, and then have a nice little chat about why THE MOVIE WAS BETTER.

The first time I watched, I was very cynical about it, and I had good reason. Spielberg is an incredibly competent filmmaker, but in many ways, his adventure movies are no longer as effective as they used to be in the 80s and early 90s. In 2018, much of nerdy subculture has been widely destigmatised, superheroes dominate the movie industry and computer games make billions every year, and, the idea of the nerdy underdog feels inherently cynical. This is further underlined by the fact that OASIS does not just feature the excessive 80s references from the Cline book, but more modern pop-cultural phenomena like Gundam Wing or Halo.

These hugely popular franchises pitted against a large generic company lacks a certain amount of self-reflection, is all I am saying.

Irony black hole anyone

I hated how the main character was a self-satisfied teenage boy telling off what essentially were coded as “fake fans” for not being as into Halliday’s life as he and his little troop are. They ultimately fail at the big quest because they aren’t really fans, just people trying to jump on the bandwagon for profit. This is not a comfortable stance to watch in the age of digital culture gatekeeping, online harassment and other deeply unpleasant social issues which we are not going to discuss in detail

Please don’t flag me

The people framed as the heroes, most notably Wade (who I dislike in every iteration, both viewings and the book), represent a viewpoint which makes perfect sense within a Spielberg universe. The underdog facing off against the corrupt cooperation is standard 80s and 90s fare, especially in movies aimed at kids and teenagers. But nothing exists in a vacuum, and this film really rubbed me the wrong way.

I had other issues – like the way the world-building was really kind of half-hearted – but since this adhered to the original, I couldn’t really fault the film for that.

Then I saw it a second time, and while I didn’t love it, I softened my stance – or rather, I found myself watching the film through two different lenses. While my original complaints were still valid, I found it was in fact possible to enjoy the film in a more fairy-tale fashion. Spielberg is still a master storyteller, and he really makes the best out of the material he has here. While the book was a messy and clumsy attempt at social commentary mixed with some of the most aggressive nostalgia-pandering I have ever seen in my life

Jesus Christ dude no one really misses the 80s that much. Please. Stop.

Spielberg’s version very wisely side-steps most of the world-building, does not try to comment on racial politics or social situation, and mostly just focusses on the magical (because in this case, the technology really might as well be magic), and the standard Hero’s Journey tropes. The friendship between the group of kids is heart-warming, the bad guys are the usual bumbling adult fools which often mark 80s films, and the conclusion is satisfying in a way that life virtually never is.

This just occurred to me but I wonder – since a lot of the things referenced in the movie are in fact Steven Spielberg’s films from the 80s, is the whole thing a meta throwback, as in, is it the ultimate 80s homage with its campy comments and adventure plotline and is Spielberg really just trolling us all extra hard or is it some kind of time paradox and argh never mind

There is a sort of nostalgic charm hanging over the whole thing. And I admit, it is fun to try and spot all the extra-diegetic Easter eggs. I find it is in fact a tolerable film, which can be enjoyed while not being let off the hook for its shortcomings. And while it does have a lot of problems, I found the movie to be much, much better. There were two main reasons for this.

First, the aforementioned avoidance of the real-world politics and world-building. Usually I am all for the inclusion of socio-political issues in kids films – children are not stupid, and it is completely possible to have a meaningful kid-friendly discussion about serious topics like racism or the environment. However, because Cline handles this superficially and badly, Spielberg would either have to keep it – running the risk of amplifying an inadvertently problematic (I say, generously) world view, going in deeper, or letting it drift gently to the background. Since I would not trust even Spielberg with the delicate issues Cline raises, I am very glad he went for option three.

Second, I liked the way Sam/Art3mis was changed for the film. Spielberg wisely reveals her in the real world around the mid-point, and she takes over a far more active role throughout. She is ultimately a supporting role to Wade, who obviously holds the traditional hero role, and yes, he does “get her” in the end, but I minded less than usual because they had some time to build a relationship and develop chemistry. I can live with it. At this point, I should also mention that the kids in this film are really phenomenally well-cast and do a brilliant job with their roles. I couldn’t imagine anyone more appropriate. A lot of my second-viewing lenience was appreciation for the group chemistry.

I still hated the inclusion of modern stuff, though because it messes with the alternate history timeline

I see you, Will Smith and your weird shitty Shrek references in Bright

The Gundam Wing scene was pretty cool though, damnit.

I don’t know if I can recommend this film. I guess it a fun evening romp, if you don’t think too hard about it, or a fun-to-hate flick if you are into nit-picking socio-economics out of film theory. Whatever works for you, guys.